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article imageReview: Campy ‘Holmes’ touring production is a little too elementary Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Nov 3, 2015 in Entertainment
Toronto - Like Batman, James Bond and other iconic heroes, Sherlock Holmes has seen so many reinventions that the original image is almost forgotten. Arthur Conan Doyle would faint if he were alive to see what pop culture has made of his famed creation.
But Holmes is hip these days, thanks largely to the Benedict Cumberbatch TV series and the Robert Downey Jr. movies. Cashing in on the beloved British detective’s popular resurgence is the late Greg Kramer’s 2013 play Sherlock Holmes, a comedic blend of elements from numerous Doyle books and stories into one very convoluted plot involving the London opium scene of the 1890s. Winner of five Montreal English Theatre Awards, the show is now touring North America with David Arquette in the title role; it played Los Angeles in October and opens tonight in Toronto.
Despite such relatively big names as Arquette and Big Time Rush’s James Maslow as a youthful rendition of sidekick Dr. Watson, the real star of director Andrew Shaver’s frenetic, fast-paced Holmes is the visuals. The spectacular production design by Cirque du Soleil veteran James Lavoie, with help from Itai Erdal’s lighting and video work by George Allister and Patrick Andrew Boivin, is what keeps it going.
Pity that Arquette’s performance doesn’t come anywhere near these high standards. Double pity that Kramer’s script doesn’t meet them either, as this was his last play (he died when the original Montreal production went into rehearsals). For all its technical perfection, this show feels so soulless and mechanical that you may find yourself yearning for the simple pleasures of Sherlock Hemlock and the Great Twiddlebug Mystery.
Holmes kicks off with two mysteries of its own, the police’s discovery of a drowned man’s body and the disappearance of Lord Neville St. John, the latter a lobbyist for the criminalization of opium. Both cases turn out to be linked to a complex plot by criminal kingpin Professor James Moriarty (Kyle Gatehouse) to sabotage the House of Lords’ impending vote on the opium ban. Lord Neville’s American wife, Lady Irene (Renee Olstead), seeks help from Holmes — “the world’s only consulting detective” — as does Inspector George Lestrade (Patrick Costello), to solve this case.
In the meantime, Dr. Watson has just come back from Afghanistan and needs a place to stay; he meets Holmes, who puts Watson up at 221B Baker Street and immediately drafts him into his new case. Although this is meant to be a new origin story about the famous team, there’s no real development of the new friendship between Holmes and Watson, beyond the latter’s annoyance of Holmes’ pipe habit and mild bafflement at his eccentric behaviour.
“I can’t tell if he’s joking,” Inspector Lestrade says of Holmes at one point, following by Watson’s quip, “Welcome to my life!” That’s as deep an understanding as you get of what makes this duo click.
Lestrade’s comment could also describe Arquette’s one-note performance, which consists primarily of a phony “Sherlockian” voice that sounds like the way an amateur stand-up comic might imitate a crusty upper-class British lord. (He also appeared to stumble over several lines during the preview performance that I saw last week.) I would have rather seen what his Oscar-winning sister Patricia, or even Rosanna, would have done with the character.
Maslow’s Watson is decent, but hardly memorable, while the cast as a whole is handicapped by its own inconsistent English accents. (Although Olstead is originally from Houston and plays an American, Lady Irene’s voice has inexplicable British lilts in it too.) But the real problem may be Kramer’s script itself, which gives the actors nothing meaty to work with as it treats all the characters as cogs in a plot machine.
Again, the real strength of this show is the technical side. Lavoie, Erdal, Allister and Boivin create a lot of fun and showy effects as the story leaps here and there between settings; projected images of period wallpaper suggest Holmes’ study or an opium den, and visions of London buildings panning along the sides of the action create the illusion of the characters riding a coach down the street. An early flashback sequence is cleverly staged as a live silent movie, complete with jerky movements by the actors and flickering lighting. A couple of other scenes succeed with broad comedy, especially a slapstick set piece at a morgue, with a rigor-mortis corpse with limbs that just won’t stay down.
But Holmes purists, and even audience members with only basic familiarity with the Holmes universe, will be disappointed on some level. There’s little here that resembles the original Doyle spirit, despite a few obligatory nods in the direction of tradition (Holmes discovering his famous hat, his penchant for disguise, etc.). If all you want from Sherlock Holmes is a masterpiece of production design and technical craft, the show delivers. But as an adaptation of the Holmes legend, it’s a little too elementary, my dear.
Sherlock Holmes runs at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre until Sunday.
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